1828, Part 2
New York City / State Timeline
from Eagles Byte by David Minor
Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic
Hot Times in the Old Time
They wouldn't have known the expression in 1828, of course, but after five sweltering days of a semi-tropical New York City August, our British visitors were ready to 'get out of the kitchen.' Five days after their arrival, as James Stuart put it, "The continuance of intense heat (Fahrenheit's thermometer at 90) having led us to shorten our stay at New York, we, that is, the friend who accompanied us, my wife and I, proceeded on 28th August from New York to Albany, in the North America steamer, the most beautiful and swift of the floating palaces on the Hudson, or, as I believe, I may add with truth, in the world. She left New-York at 7, A.M.". We'll re-join them after a glance at some of the other events in the city at the mouth of the Hudson this year of 1828.
Stuart's goal was the Erie Canal, a waterway that continued to foster a great increase in the water traffic in and out of Manhattan. On Water Street, businessmen Zebedee Ring, Jesse Hurd and several associates built the New York Screw Dock Company to speed the loading and unloading of vessels, using a screw-driven elevator to hoist goods up and over the high sides. September would see the start of construction on the Harlem Canal, as a shortcut across Manhattan at 108th Street. The project was abandoned at about the halfway point, but engineers would still be reconfiguring northern Manhattan waterways ninety-five years later. Another canal would prove to be more successful. On December 10th, the Delaware and Hudson, first of the anthracite canals, would bring its initial shipment to New York City from the Pennsylvania coal fields, aboard the sloop Toleration. Heating your home with coal would soon become more affordable than heating with a nearly-depleted wood supply. As a sign of the times, Hudson Street merchant A. M. Bailey advertised a new grate, especially designed to accommodate the new fuel.
New York acquired Blackwell's Island by foreclosure in July. The courts would later rule the exchange illegal and the city ended up having to pay $52,500 for the cigar-shaped land in the middle of the East River. Over the next few decades it would be used to house first prison inmates, then the city's poor, insane and incurably ill. Today, renamed Roosevelt Island, it houses apartment dwellers, an aerial tramway to the mainland, and a historical society.
As Stuart's vessel neared Albany it would have passed a few miles west of the Columbia County town of Kinderhook. It was in his lair here that political animal Martin Van Buren was busily pulling strings, working for the elevation of General Andrew Jackson to the U. S. Presidency. Back in January he'd arranged for the annual dinner in Manhattan to celebrate the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, fought by Old Hickory 13 years previously. It was to be the first celebratory shot in a barrage of public events that included the establishment of Old Hickory Clubs across the city that would parade to the nearest spot of bare dirt to plant a hickory tree, then repair to the nearest watering hole to consume great quantities of something other than water. We probably can't blame Van Buren for the rumor that rival candidate John Quincy Adams had offered his child's nanny as a mistress to the czar of Russia; the newspaper editor suspected of putting out that one was given a position in Jackson's government when the old duelist won office on December 3rd.
We'll check on our other former duelist next time.
Afloat in Style
Before the advent of the steamboat, the 164-mile trip between New York and Albany often took a full week or more; now, in 1828, James Stuart and his fellow passengers in the vessel North America are able to do it in ten-and-a-half hours, with a "delay at nine landing-places" built in. In his account of that day's voyage he finds much to remark on, from the passing scenery to the boat's appointments to his 900 fellow passengers, many of whom share his party's purpose, to escape the city's stifling heat. Most will go on to Saratoga Springs to wait out the final days of summer. The vessel pulls away from the pier at 7 AM and heads upriver, passing upper Manhattan on one side; Jersey City, and "the promontory and pleasure-grounds of Hoboken" on the other. Promontories turn to Palisades and the eastern bank to, "a waving outline of rich, cultivated, and undulating country, ornamented with villas, farm-houses, and cottages, and bounded by sloping rising grounds." Then they enter the two wide expanses of river, the Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay. They pass Sing-Sing at the entrance to the latter, where almost three years earlier the celebratory guns of De Witt Clinton's Erie Canal pleasure fleet startled the early prisoners awake. Back in this January, John Thompson Hoffman was born in the village. He will grow up to begin two-terms as governor of the state forty years from now. The boat continues on through the lazy afternoon, river breezes providing relief from the temperature. As they pass through, then exit, the precipitous highlands, Fort Putnam, Stoney Point, and the military academy at West Point, glide by. Then Fishkill, Hyde Park and, on the western horizon, the Catskill Mountains. But man does not live by scenery alone.
They will be served two meals, breakfast soon after departure, and dinner (our lunch) early in the afternoon. "The breakfast consisted of the same articles that had been daily set before us at the City Hotel, with a large supply of omelets in addition. The equipage and whole style of the thing good, The people seemed universally to eat more animal food —meaning 'flesh', or 'meat' —than the British are accustomed to do, even at such a breakfast as this, and to eat quickly. The dinner consisted of two courses, 1. of fish, including very large lobsters, roast-meat, especially roast-beef, beef-steaks, and fowls of various kinds, roasted and boiled, potatoes and vegetables of various kinds; 2. which is here called the dessert, of pies, puddings, and cheese." Multiply that by 900 and you get some idea how large the kitchen and its staff must have been, Brandy was provided free at each table and other potables could be bought in the bar located in a separate stateroom nearby. Diners were served by a black staff ('men of colour', in the language of the day) who were "clean looking, clever, and active, —evidently picked men in point of appearance." One year after the state's countdown to abolition had begun, they are also surprised when an elegantly dressed and obviously well educated black woman tells them she is not allowed to eat in the boat's dining room because of her color.
Stuart makes one other observation about the furnishing of the vessel. "We observed nothing to find fault with in this beautiful vessel, but the presence of spit boxes everywhere, —a necessary evil, I suspect, whilst cigars, and tobacco in other shapes, are so generally used as in this country." He's forced to admit that he should not have been so surprised, seeing as the Scots only gave up their spit-boxes in the last 30 years. Left with this image we join the mobs of passengers preparing for their arrival in Albany.
Hello, Albany, Goodbye
The steamboat North America, bearing James Stuart's party and close to 900 other passengers, which had left Manhattan at 7 AM on a late August morning in 1828, arrived at the state capital at 5 PM that same day. Former New York mayor Philip Hone had made the same journey a short time earlier. Hone doesn't give an exact date but Stuart would have mentioned the politician if they had been on the same vessel. He isn't specific about their landing spot but does mention the view of the city from Greenbush, across the river. He also gives a detailed description of the horse ferry that crosses the river at this point; perhaps he just took the strange, new contraption, which he believes is unique to the country, across and back, out of curiosity. A large horizontal wheel located below deck is turned by true horsepower, the number of the animals depending on, "the size of the boat, rapidity of the tide, and other circumstances." The motion of the wheel is transmitted by crude gears to two vertical paddle wheels, which propel the ferry.
Anxious to move on to the west by way of the canal he and his party stay only a day or two, putting up at the Eagle Hotel, finding its bedrooms as meagerly furnished as those in their Manhattan hotel. He mentions the broad State Street climbing up the hillside to the government buildings, the mansion house in the north end belonging to the Patroon, General Van Rensselaer, the basins for the Erie and the Champlain canals. Fascinated by the state's canals, he gives the city with its five wards short shrift. Had his interest been greater he might have visited some of the new institutions and buildings appearing on the scene—The Albany Female Seminary, incorporated this year; St Paul's Episcopal Church, the city's first Gothic-revival building; the African Methodist Episcopal Church, later to become part of the Underground Railroad. Had he stuck around for a few weeks he might even have gotten to see a performance of Thomas Flynn's dramatization of Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle." The city seems to have recovered from February's period of mourning for Clinton, who died of a heart attack here on the 11th of that month, $6,000 in debt, at his home at North Pearl and Steuben streets. Other citizens, some prominent, some not so yet, are striking out on their own paths this year. James Eights, second in command on Rennselaer professor Amos Eaton's "Traveling School of Science on the Erie Canal" two years ago, is named surgeon and naturalist on a scientific expedition to the Antarctic, and will depart next February. And a hardware merchant by the name of Erastus Corning, having inherited $18,000 from his uncle Benjamin Smith, makes plans to expand. His partner of four years, John T. Norton, feeling Corning is overextending himself, pulls out of the firm. Also this year Corning is elected as an alderman and moves from a rental apartment on Beaver Street to a rowhouse at 102 State Street. As we'll see in future visits, 'Overextended' should be Corning's middle name', both in the realms of business and politics. Thing is, he makes it all work, becoming one of the state's wealthiest citizens.
Stuart mentions plans to visit the falls at Cohoes, or Big Falls, to the west of the city, but the plans are aborted by the excessive heat that seems to have followed them up from Manhattan. Although they are to travel west by the Erie Canal, the large number of locks on the climb out of the steep Hudson Valley makes the journey too slow for most travelers. They will emulate De Witt Clinton's route he and other canal commissioners took in 1810 to plan the canal, and take the coach the fifteen miles to Schenectady. So will we, next time.
We've met Amos Eaton a number of times in our travels through New York State. Now the library at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute has an exhibit dedicated to the old rock hound, one of its founders, at http://www.lib.rpi.edu/Archives/gallery/Eaton/eaton.html You'll find an illustrated biography, manuscripts with 1830 field notes and correspondence in graphic and transcript form, photos and descriptions of several artifacts, and a bibliography of materials written by Eaton. Links will take you both to materials on his pioneering effort to get women students at the future RPI, and to the diary of his son Amos Beebe Eaton, a participant in Florida's Second Seminole War, from 1837-1838.
Stage Coach One and Others
Noah Webster's first dictionary of American English, debuting this year of 1828, defined 'everlasting' as 'Lasting or enduring for ever; eternal; existing or continuing without end . . ..' It would also have described James Stuart's feelings at the end of his first day on the Erie Canal. Or it would have if he'd chosen to get to Schenectady by boat. By the time most travelers had watched the boatmen work their craft through all 27 of the locks bypassing the Great Falls at Cohoes and lifting them high out of the Hudson Valley, eternity might have seemed preferable.
Having decided, on August 30, to leave that journey to the cargo boats, Stuart, his party, and their baggage were gathered at the bottom of the steps in front of the three-story Eagle Hotel by the Saturday morn's early light, as four horses and an elongated, nine-passenger stagecoach clattered into view along Broadway. While their luggage was being fastened to the back of the coach they climbed aboard and took their seats. They had heard that the locals were not very used to traveling by stage and often became roadsick when riding backwards over the roughly graded highway. Stages having been common in Britain for many years, our travelers were not so bothered and took the front seats with their backs toward the horses. Their conveyance pulled away from the tavern and began making the rounds of other inns, filling the coach with more passengers. Stuart notes that even President Adams (John Quincy, that is) reportedly travels part way by public coach when going between Boston and Washington.
Finally they were off, covering the fifteen miles to Schenectady by noontime, a half day ahead of that morning's Albany boats. The continuing heat made several stops at inns and taverns along the route a necessity, while the driver watered his animals and the ladies and children aboard got out to slake their own thirst, with water provided free of-charge. Within an hour of arrival it was time for a light snack—"fish, roast beef, boiled Iamb, broiled chickens, potatoes, squash, beet-root, green cabbage unboiled, cut down like pickled red cabbage, in vinegar; apple pie, pudding, cheese, melted butter, cold butter, and pickled cucumbers." —price, 50 cents.
Stuart noticed that the settlement of close to 4,000 people, that this year incorporated its fire department, had a college with an additional 200 young men in attendance. It's more than likely Stuart was too full to explore much and, besides, the canal packet boat was ready to leave at two. They found the scenery delightful, running along beside the Mohawk River, but it was Low-Bridge-Everybody-Down time and the passengers soon tired of clambering down off the cabin roof every time a overpass came along. After 24 hours of this they decided once they reached Utica they'd take to the stages again. Meanwhile their three-mule team moved the boat along at about four miles an hour. In spite of constantly ducking bridges they enjoyed the sights—the two pre-Revolutionary stone houses of Sir William Johnson's family, and the narrow, rocky defile at Little Falls (where James declared the cataract was, "nowise remarkable." Often the boat would nestle briefly against the shore while a workman or local farmer would come aboard for a short 'lift', at a charge of three or four cents per mile. When they finally reached Utica, 26 hours after leaving Schenectady, Stuart reported seeing, for the first time in the U. S., "an intoxicated person, an Indian, standing beside the canal, hurraing for Jackson." In a few years, Indian hurrahs would turn to tears, but that's another story.
If you'd like to get a look at what Stuart missed, try these links:
© 2005, David Minor
The Eagles Byte New York City / State Timeline is from David Minor's radio scripts for Simon Pontin's Salmagundy radio program on WXXI-FM (91.5). David can be heard every Saturday morning at 10:15 talking about various aspects of world history.